Yves here. Germany is very upset that Poland has voted in a populist, Euroskeptic, anti-austerity government. Germany is also critical of the fact that the new government increased its control over public media. This is the pot calling the kettle black, since as Rose documents in detail, a great deal of reporting on state-controlled media amount to official propaganda.
By Mathew D. Rose, a freelance journalist in Berlin
Oh well, here we go again. Now it’s the Poles who are being recalcitrant and rebelling against Germany’s dictate. And once again it’s the bloody minded voters who are to blame. Poles recently elected the Law and Justice party, providing it with an impressive mandate, being the first party in the post-Communist era to obtain an absolute majority, while routing the neo-liberal, quisling party Civic Platform.
The victorious Law and Justice party is conservative, Catholic, nationalistic, and Eurosceptic. Even worse in the eyes of Germany, the party espouses a Keynesian economic programme, including additional taxation of banks. Law and Justice’s unprecedented electoral support was a reaction to the corruption that is a hallmark of Civic Platform and the general perception that during eight years of Civic Platform government Poland’s economic growth, much in the tradition of the EU, has mainly benefitted a small elite.
Not only has the new government rapidly enacted legislation to increase government control over the constitutional court and the civil service, but it has passed a new media law giving control of Polish public radio and TV to a national media council close to the government, as well as permitting the treasury minister to hire and fire broadcasting chiefs – a role currently in the hands of a media supervisory committee, which was dominated by Civic Platform.
Public media broadcasters are a valuable democratic resource and any infringements upon their autonomy are an egregious blow for citizens, wishing to obtain information free of particular interests. Unfortunately public media is constantly a victim of intervention by the political powers that be. Even the BBC, one of the jewels of British culture, is currently facing a dramatic attack by the Tory government in connection with license fees and its upcoming charter renewal.
The most vociferous critics of the new Polish media laws are the Germans. This is rather odd because German public media broadcasters are completely in the hands of the political parties, better said, of Chancellor Merkels Christian Union and the waning Social Democrats.
Let us start with the major public television broadcaster Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen (Second German Television), best known by its monogram ZDF, which is run in conjunction by the German federal states. It is supposed to be independent. A brief glimpse at its governance structures however tells a very different story.
The most powerful governing body of ZDF is the supervisory board, which consists of 14 members. Five of these are determined by the federal states, a sixth by the federal government. In other words they are politicians, currently all from the Christian Union and Social Democratic party. Then there are a further eight “independent” members: one is a retired Social Democratic state minister; a second was a member of the Bundestag for the Christian Union as well as having been a junior minister in the federal government, before he became head of the Confederation of German Employers’ Associations. You might be having difficulties differentiating between the politicians and “independent” members of the supervisory board – because there is none. In fact all fourteen members are determined by the political parties in power.
Just how democratic this system is, was demonstrated in 2009 as the contract of the then chief editor of ZDF, Nikolaus Bender, was up for renewal. Bender was a rather innocuous journalist, some might say a bit stodgy, but he was fair, objective and kept – as best he could – party influence in ZDF at bay. The Christian Union did not appreciate this in the least. For them public media is there to serve the political class. In advance they made known that they were throwing Bender out, which resulted in a massive public uproar in Benndr’s support. This did not faze the supervisory board in the least. Bender’s contract was not renewed. In Germany this is good democratic practice, in Poland it is a transgression of democracy.
A legal suit was filed. Five years later Germany’s Constitutional Court decided in connection with the Bender affair that things had to change at ZDF, as the political parties not only had too much power, but were abusing it, thereby violating the principle of freedom of the press.The public broadcaster however is and remains the domain of the two main German political parties and their cronies. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
The other German public media broadcaster, the ARD, consists of television and radio, Unlike the ZDF, the ARD is decentralised and consists of nine regional members who produce their own programmes as well as for the ARD national channel. In this case each regional member has its own journalistic fiefdom, but the rulers are the same: the political parties and their placemen.
Within the ARD similar structures exist as in the ZDF. For example in ZDF the director general is nominated by the Christian Union and the chief editor by the Social democrats. This is not anchored in any law, just a tacit division of the political spoils. In the ARD there is a similar system, depending on who is in office. Sometimes the parties do not bother with democratic pretensions and simply name one of their own politicians to run things, for example the Christian Social Union in Bavaria, who appointed one of their veteran spokesman as director general for their regional programme. The Social Democrats heaved one of their own into the same post in Saarland. The patronage system does not stop here. The principal postings, and many less important ones, in the ZDF and ARD, are decided by party membership or loyalties, not necessarily by merit. The daughter of Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s finance minister, for example, was given a generously remunerated position in the ARD.
Thus many employees in public media place the interests of their political patrons, who provided them with their well paid jobs, ahead of good or objective journalism. Before Bender’s removal from his job at ZDF he claimed in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel that ZDF was riddled with informants for the political parties, a system he compared to that used by the former secret police of East Germany.
The situation is however much worse than that. Upon my first contact with German public media almost 25 years ago while researching obvious false reporting in the interest of the reigning political parties in Berlin, I was fortunate to stumble upon a critical and upstanding journalist who was very open about the situation in his workplace. He explained the concept of self-censorship, known in German as “Schere im Kopf” (scissors in one’s head). Most Journalists at ARD and ZDF do not need to be told what to write and what not to write. Everyone knows where the limits are and cross the red line at their own risk. There have been numerous cases similar to that of Bender, most of which did not receive any publicity.
How far this sort of self-censorship extends, was recently seen in the events on New Year’s Eve in and around Cologne’s main railway station. Not only did the police (where higher positions are also filled according to party affiliation) hold back the information, but the public media as well, so as not to negatively influence the current policy of the government regarding immigrants. The story only came to light because the dimensions were so enormous and there are private media that have an anti-immigrant agenda and ran the story.
Biased coverage is a trademark of German public media. Reporting of the recent events in Ukraine, Greece and austerity, for example, can only be described as state propaganda. That applies to most of the news programmes ARD and ZDF produce. Of course there are the exceptions, but these are few and far between, their principal value being as an alibi to demonstrate that there is critical reporting by public broadcasters. In the recent past even such programmes have come under increasing pressure from Germany’s political parties. Nowadays they prefer to investigate topics, such as the right wing, populist party Alternative for Germany or neo-Nazis, leaving the mainstream parties relatively unscathed.
Many Germans are obviously fed up with this constant diet of state propaganda in their public media, which are steadily losing their audience. Those viewers and listeners that remain have an average age of around 60, as younger generations seek better information in the internet. German political parties however need these propaganda institutions. Whereas the major German political parties propagate austerity, they keep increasing the mandatory fees that citizens pay to finance ARD and ZDF. This is the money used to report for example about the aggresive intervention by the Law and Justice party in public media in Poland – and the news anchors do not even blush.
This is just the beginning of Poland’s troubles. As the fissiparous nature of the EU is becoming increasingly visible, so is the reaction of Germany against renitent member states. The Poles, who have been invaded, occupied or annexed by the Germans for much of the past 350 years, are not terribly amenable to being dragooned by their Teutonic neighbours. Their natural ally has become the United States, which they see as capable of protecting them from any Russian threat, not Germany and its dysfunctional armed forces. Add to this the increasing self-confidence of the Visegrad group towards Germany and it appears this could turn into a prolonged conflict.